Canadians are fond of reminding each other that 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water lies within our borders.
It’s a reassuring figure, and one that leads to some debate: should we commercialize this abundance, and profit from sales to a drought-ridden United States, or conserve the resource for our own future?
According to a suppressed Environment Canada report from 2007, our self-image as a water-rich nation is more mirage than oasis.
In reality, Canadians are facing the possibility of an acute water crisis in the near future. Obtained in an access to information request by the council of Canadians and Mining Watch, the report makes fascinating, if chilling, reading.
Most of Canada’s vaunted freshwater supply is non-renewable. The Great Lakes, for instance, are almost entirely filled with ancient glacier-melt, or “fossil water” which can never be replaced. Our real share of the world’s renewable water supply is about seven per cent, much lower than that of Brazil and Russia, and about equal to that of the US
Only one per cent of Canada’s freshwater supply is renewed annually. The rest is stored in underground aquifers or in glaciers. Further, as the report points out, “most of our rivers flow north” away from where most of our citizens live. Unless we are so foolish as to squander fossil water that once spent can never be recovered, we are not nearly as rich in water as we have been led to believe.
Canada’s water supply faces multiple threats from increased population, industrial pollution and climate change.
Here in the Yukon, for instance, the report predicts “impacts on river flows caused by glacial retreat and disappearance” resulting in “reduced hydroelectric power, ecological impacts (including fisheries) damage to infrastructure, (and) water apportionment.”
According to the report, 33 per cent of Canadians depend on groundwater. But our knowledge of its “quantity, its quality and renewal rate are sparse and often inadequate for management.” This lack of data weakens our position in negotiations over cross-border water issues with the US.
Canadians are the world’s second-biggest per capita consumers of water. To make matters worse, the No. 1 consuming country is right next door, and they’re running short. And unlike the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the North American Free Trade Agreement contains no provisions to protect national sovereignty over water.
Canada has a patchwork of laws that protect our water from bulk exports, but NAFTA Chapter 11 has the potential to override these. Chapter 11 is the provision in the trade agreement that permits foreign corporations to sue governments over any regulation proven to be bad for business. For instance in 1997, when the government of Canada tried to ban the gasoline additive MMT — a known neurotoxin — its manufacturer successfully sued, winning $13 million in damages and causing the repeal of the ban.
In 1998, Sun Belt Water Corporation of California filed a notice of claim for $10 billion over British Columbia’s ban on bulk water exports. The Chretien government negotiated with the company, but the results of those talks have never been made public.
Large areas of the US are desperate for water, and growing ever more so. A great deal of this desperation could be relieved by appropriate conservation methods, and by a radical change in farming practices, but instead corporations and their allies in government have their eye on Canada’s mythical supply of endless clean water.
In a leaked “concept paper” for the 2007 Security and Prosperity Partnership in Montebello, Quebec, the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies spoke of the need “to overcome the bureaucratic challenges posed by … different political systems and legal regimes, particularly if the overriding future goal of North America is to achieve joint optimum utilization of the available water.”
Last year the Bloq Quebecois made a motion in Parliament to re-open NAFTA in order to protect Canada’s water from bulk exports. The Conservative government voted the motion down. With no such protection in the agreement, it’s hard to say how long we can resist “joint optimum utilization” of our own scarce store of renewable fresh water.
Bulk water transfers by pipeline or diversion could prove disastrous for Canada’s environment, and for our domestic supply. Existing and projected pressures on our water — such as global warming and population increase — mean we will have to change our ways, to learn to use domestic water wisely, to curtail industrial pollution of our lakes and rivers, and to turn away from water-greedy commercial farming methods.
After we’ve taken these steps to conserve our own fresh water supply, when the neighbours come knocking looking to redirect Canadian rivers, we can suggest instead that they try a little conservation of their own. We might look like a water-rich nation, but the truth is we barely have enough to go around.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.